Smoking meth would be a better way to spend your time than reading this drivel. D.A.R.E. to never read this book.
Last night, July 15, 2012, the premier of the fifth season of “Breaking Bad” aired on AMC TV. This book was published in order to coincide with the start of the fifth season of this popular TV series. For those of you who both love the series and have a philosophical bent,***** I strongly recommend that you steer clear of this book. ***** It isn’t worth the time, money or effort. It’s not horrifically bad, as was Open Court’s “Rolling Stones and Philosophy” or “Chuck Klosterman and Philosophy”, but the mostly terrible essays and ever-present, ever-persistent typographical errors bring this entry in Open Court’s “Popular Culture and Philosophy” series right up there with the best of the worst.
Clocking in at 242 pages, this collection of nineteen essays is broken up into seven sections, with two to three essays per section. The essays are shorter than usual, averaging just under twelve pages each, with many running at about 9 pages. Since the protagonist of the TV series is a high school chemistry teacher who has turned to manufacturing and distributing meth after learning that he has cancer, each section has a chemistry theme (“Analyze This”, “Equations Must Balance”, “There’s Meth in My Madness”, etc.). The cover pages of each section carry this chemistry theme further, as letters are randomly replaced with entries from the periodic table of elements (e.g. replacing the letter “U” with the symbol for Uranium, along with noting its atomic number, 92). Cute. Too bad they made a mistake on the cover page for “There’s Meth in My Madness”, labeling the ending “s” in “There’s” with the number 92. “S” is for sulfur, atomic number 16 (p.79). Tsk tsk tsk.
Following the essays is “Spontaneous Reactions”, a section that lists real-life examples of high school teachers arrested for various criminal acts. Completely useless. Following this is “The Bad Elements”, which has the one-paragraph bios of each of the contributing authors. ***** Never has such a section been more aptly named. *****
Here’s the scorecard of how the nineteen essays stack up:
Solid essays Chps. 15, 19
Good tie-in of theme from TV series with philosophy Chps. 5, 6, 7, 14
Okay Chps. 1,4,9,13
Simplistic/Weak Chps. 10, 12, 16, 18
EPIC FAIL Chps. 2,3, 8, 11, 17
Oli Mould’s “Been through the Desert on a Horse with No Name” applied Jacques Lacan’s idea of the Real to the constructed reality that we use to buffer our psyches from reality. We construct our realities from a combination of language, symbols, media, history, culture, and everyday experiences. Our constructed reality is a kind of defense mechanism against the harshness of reality, against the Real, which, nevertheless, has a habit of irrupting through and changing us. Mould’s thesis is that “Breaking Bad” shows just how realities change in response to exposure to the Real. This essay was a solid application of a philosophical (or would you prefer psychoanalytical) idea to a theme in the TV series.
Aaron C. Anderson’s and Justine Lopez’ “Meth, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” was a superb essay, and one that I feel was the best possible choice for concluding this book. The authors applied the ideas in J.S. Mills’ 1859 work “On Liberty” in order to justify the actions of the protagonist, Walter White. Today meth is illegal, but the fact that it is demonstrates that there is always a conflict between the “sovereignty of the individual over himself” versus “the authority of the state”. Although J. S. Mill was speaking out against efforts to make alcohol illegal in his time, the arguments are as easily applied to the manufacture of meth today. Thus, “Breaking Bad” explores the limits of liberty.
Darryl J. Murphy’s “Heisenberg’s Uncertain Confession” was a mishmash of ideas, spackled together with the author’s complete lack of understanding of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Mr. Murphy apparently tried to draw parallels between the lives of Walter White (known as “Heisenberg” to criminal elements) and St. Augustine. Had he stayed on this track, he might have been able to craft a decent essay. Unfortunately, he appeared to need to show off his complete misunderstanding of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. This principle, like many from modern physics, has been applied to death in every area of human understanding, and incorrectly so. A consequence of comparing the difference between a partial derivative of motion with respect to distance against a partial derivative of motion with respect to time, it has no real application to anything that Mr. Murphy wanted to discuss. But no worries, Mr. Murphy, the fact that everyone has latched onto this principle and improperly applied it all over the place drove Dr. Heisenberg himself quite batty.
Stephen Glass’ “Better than Human” forgot halfway into the essay that we were discussing “Breaking Bad”, and instead started discussing “Mad Men”. Hint, Mr. Glass, you’re in the wrong book; Wiley-Blackwell has already published “Mad Men and Philosophy”.
Sara Waller’s “I Appreciate the Strategy” attempted the impossible, and failed, horrifically. She appeared to want to tie together utilitarianism (an ethical system) with existentialism (a philosophy of the individual). This project was doomed to failure from the start. As an ethical system, utilitarianism looks at how one’s acts affect others. Other people are central to this ethical system. Existentialism, on the other hand, has no real ethical system, as its focus is the individual and his freedom to construct his own life, his own essence, contrary to the demands of other people. Indeed, existentialism has been criticized in that, at its extreme, it can devolve into nihilism. To add insult to injury, Ms. Waller sought fit to end her essay with a marathon racing metaphor. Unbelievable. Do they no longer teach people how to organize their thoughts and write coherently in American universities anymore???
Denise Du Vernay’s “Breaking Bonds” attempted to play the feminist angle by claiming to focus on “sexual politics” and “the characterization of female characters”. Too bad this essay had absolutely nothing to talk about, except for the in-depth detail Ms. Du Vernay provided on protagonist Walter White. There was no philosophy in this essay, no feminist philosophy, no substance, nothing.
In the introduction, “A Fine Meth We’ve Gotten Into”, editors David R. Koepsell and Robert Arp state: “In these chapters, our authors consider the philosophical, psychological, and sociological issues behind this critically acclaimed drama”. That should have been the tip-off that, for the most part, Open Court YET AGAIN wasn’t going to stick to its alleged mandate of “popular culture and philosophy”, but rather, present sloppy, incoherent and meandering essays written by weak-minded academics who truly believe that they are “practicing philosophy”. SO sad. Tsk tsk tsk. Feel MY pain, gentle reader, and be glad that you won’t have to suffer through this drivel. It’s enough to make you start smoking meth. John V. Karavitis